Academic | Essay Contest
The experts agree: the best action to take when caught in a relationship with an abusive partner is to get out. It may be tempting to stay, if only for the perceived sense of security involved, but if the cruelty does not cease, it is better to dissolve the partnership.
This is the conflict underlying Kamala Markandaya's naturalistic novel Nectar in a Sieve. Rukmani and Nathan love the land that they work obsessively, almost mindlessly, despite the constant abuses it lays on them. Why do they show this devotion? Because their minds are on the pragmatic benefits they believe the land will confer upon them. This, however, is a poor motivation for remaining in such a relationship, and I cannot admire them for it.
Let us examine the value that this perseverant couple places on the land, based on an idealized concept of its worth in the past, the present, and the future, and see how the object of their love betrays every hope they set on it.
Most people dislike change. Rukmani is no exception. She equates the land with idyllic tradition and the halcyon days of the past; she sees it as an unmoving island amidst the motion of Time's river. She pictures herself "clutching in my own two hands the memory of the past, and accounting it a treasure" (33). However, the fickle land does not merit the value she places on it: it allows change to touch it, letting her hopes slip through it as through a sieve. The outside world progresses and nothing, the land included, is immune to the alterations societal development brings with it. Progress, embodied in the coming of the tannery and its foreign workers, permanently affects the lives of everyone in the village. She bitterly reflects that "the smell of their brews and liquors hung permanently in the sickened air" (33). So although Rukmani loves the land because she thinks it is changeless, it fails to insulate her and her family from the changes around them, thus betraying the hopes she places on it. The relationship the land holds with its dependents is abusive, and it is foolish to continually place trust in the untrustworthy.
Another reason this couple clings to the land is for its perceived present value. Having a plot of land to cultivate makes them feel a sense of material security in the uncertain world, because they believe the earth will provide a means of survival and a place to belong.
No one is wealthy in the small village where Nectar in a Sieve is set, but when famine strikes, some survive and others do not. Rukmani and Nathan see the land as their key to being in the first category. They are willingly yoked to the soil because they think it will give them a way to survive, a sentiment that Nathan vocalizes in chapter twenty- three: "We cannot live except by the land, for I have no other knowledge or skill" (138). Also, the land seems to provide a sense of permanence; a place to build a home and settle down. Nathan reminds his wife that "if the land is gone our livelihood is gone, and we must thenceforth wander like jackals" (78). Even when their fortunes are failing, this couple finds security in knowing that no matter what happens, they have a place to return to, and that is why they love the land. However, once again the object of their love is abusive. Nathan and Rukmani's youngest son, Kuti, literally starves to death because the ground fails to produce. And what had seemed like a stable, dependable home for thirty years, their mud hut and plot of earth, vanishes at a few words from Sivaji, the rent collector. It does not live up to their dreams of security and permanence. Again the land proves itself to be malicious, and their faith in it to be ill-founded.
Rukmani and Nathan's final reason for loving the land so blindly is its potential worth for their future. Right from the beginning of their life together, Nathan's hope is "that one day he would be able to call a small portion of land his own" (57). Possessing the land would provide them with tangible evidence of their lives' work, some degree of assurance for their future, and ultimately an inheritance for their children. This long- nurtured desire, sweet as nectar, keeps them committed to the earth throughout the book, enabling them to ignore its prior cruelty. However, in the end, the land delivers nothing but one final, overarching betrayal. Despite this couple's lifetime of fidelity and honest labor, security is yanked like a carpet from beneath their feet when they find that the land is no longer theirs. It never truly belonged to them in the first place and leaves their lives more easily than it entered, having taken from them all they could give and offering nothing in return. Old enough to be grandparents, Nathan and Rukmani find themselves hungry, penniless beggars in the courtyard of a foreign temple, attesting one last time to the abusive nature of this brutal relationship.
Having examined the reasons for Rukmani and Nathan's love for the land, I cannot say I admire them for loving it. The byproducts of their lovefortitude, faith, and fidelityare commendable, but I cannot respect their senseless clinging to an entity which continually betrays them. They continue to love the land, not because of its intrinsic goodness, but because of the benefits they hope to reap from itand never do. The relationship is cruelly abusive, and the best solution, as in all such relationships, would be to leave it. To love is, perhaps, nectar; the land is nothing but a sieve.